'Super Bug' Damages New Orleans Housing

A non-native pest known as the Formosan subterranean termite causes an estimated $350 million in damages to the city's buildings and trees annually.

April 16, 2000

New Orleans is under attack.

A non-native pest known as the Formosan subterranean termite causes an estimated $350 million in damages to the city's buildings and trees annually. That adds up to more than $1 billion in the past 10 years. Despite the bug's small size, it is the most destructive breed of termite in the world. Formosan termites consume more than 1,000 pounds of wood each year, causing 71 times more damage than the 2,400 other termite species, according to the Louisiana-Pacific Corp.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture theorizes that Formosan termites were probably stowed away on military ships carrying supplies from East Asia and the Pacific Islands after World War II. Their main points of entry were New Orleans and Lake Charles, La.; Galveston and Houston, Texas; and Charleston, S.C., according to Operation Full Stop--the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service’s Formosan Subterranean Termite Home Page. They were not detected until 1966, however.
Since their discovery, Formosan termites have devastated the buildings in New Orleans' famous French Quarter. The bug causes more than $30 million in damages to the area's historic buildings annually and has been named one of the top threats to the nation's historic buildings. New Orleans' subtropical climate, low elevation, and crowded conditions are ripe for the Formosan subterranean termite. The wood-framed buildings of the French Quarter, which are often constructed with direct wood/soil contact, provide the termites easy access.

Once inside, the buildings' dry timbers and moist bricks provide the termites with all the food and water they need to thrive. Formosan termite colonies can reach population sizes of over 10 million individual termites, according to the LSU Formosan Subterranean Termite Site.

Formosan termites build large nests within the walls and other enclosed spaces within a structure. These nests serve as residence for millions of individual termites and as reservoirs of moisture to sustain the colony during dry periods. They are also good at finding additional above-ground sources of moisture such as roof leaks, window frames, bathtubs and showers.

Once established within a building, nests are difficult to destroy. Drastic measures, such as opening the walls, must be taken to eliminate the nest. Formosan termites will also repeatedly test chemical barriers to find ways to penetrate breaches in the treated soil.

Because of the difficulties in eradicating the pest, the New Orleans infestation has reached epidemic levels. As a result, both the state and federal governments have stepped in. The Louisiana legislature recently passed laws giving the Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner the power to do whatever is necessary to deal with the Formosan termite on a statewide level. The New Orleans Termite Control Board is also currently considering a variety of measures to help control the Formosan termite, including the use of treated materials and baiting systems.

Until an effective treatment is found, the Formosan termite continues to mover through the southern half of the country. It has spread from its original points of entry in New Orleans, Lake Charles and Houston to Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

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